A brief history lesson on the art of hard cider

A brief history lesson on the art of hard cider
William Blaxton planted the first apple orchard in America in 1625. (File Photo)

By Tristan Wright 

“You want to do what?” As I migrated through the process of starting Lost Boy Cider as a business, I heard this question a lot. After tapping my network for insight, nearly every person I spoke to had no idea what cider was. Furthermore, no one knew that cider was one of the fastest growing segments within the beverage industry in America, or that it had a rich history.

Parts of the country had awoken to what history already knew, though. The pacific northwest, Michigan and New York all had healthy concentrations of cideries taking advantage of their states’ apple crops. The opportunity to open a cidery in Virginia was real, and hard cider was not only a viable option as an alcoholic beverage, it had been the mainstay of America’s – and the world’s – past. Cider was making a comeback.

So, how did hard cider get here? Let me provide you with the world’s briefest historical lesson on hard cider.

First, what is hard cider? It is a type of wine. Similar to wine made with grapes, cider is made by taking apples, pressing them into juice, discarding the pomace and adding yeast. Then, the yeast consumes the sugars in the apple juice and produces alcohol.

In 1,000 B.C., Alexander the Great discovered original growth apples in Kazakhstan. A study by MIT has traced the original growth apple trees back to one valley in the Tian Shan mountains. As the apples and their seeds moved through Asia and Europe in the B.C. Era, accompanying armies along their conquest trails, their popularity soared. Think Silk Road, the Ivory Trail or the Spice Route.

Skipping over years of apple history and about a trillion interesting facts, William Blaxton planted the first orchard in America in Boston in 1625. Settlers from England continued planting orchards in American colonial states, such as Massachusetts and Virginia. Remember Johnny Appleseed?

As America’s northeastern city populations exploded in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the country’s budding crop and water infrastructures lagged dangerously behind. With limited access to water and food, cities began to rely on apples to provide sustenance, hydration and drink.

But, with all the good apples brought, their disposition to create alcohol began to fall out of favor. The Prohibition movement in the 1920s was devastating for apples. The government raided makers of alcohol, many of whom were cideries. Orchards were burned, and an estimated 1,200 varieties of apples were lost to history almost overnight. It was catastrophic to the hard cider industry.

As the country toiled through the bureaucracies of the time, moonshiners, bootleggers and makers kept their dreams alive. Many moved into the mountains where they would be hard to find. Whiskey, vodka, and beer – all of which are easier to produce than cider – prevailed as the nation’s go-to alcoholic beverages. Hard cider’s glory days as the dominant alcohol choice were over. Temporarily.

Then, in 2012, something amazing happened. Recognizing the increasing popularity of hard cider, which micro-batch producers were enjoying, Boston Beer Company launched a bold expansion plan and began distributing a new hard cider product called Angry Orchard. With national distribution already in place, Angry Orchard became an instant success. Its sales numbers that year were staggering. Consumption of hard cider rose 75% in the nation that year, and the hard cider boom was on.

Since then, cideries have sprung up throughout the entire country. There are 820 in the United States today, and the industry is still quite small. For context, there are 7,450 breweries. We have cideries in states that are not historically recognized as apple-growing states, like Alaska and Texas. We have cideries in big cities, and, of course, small towns. Boston Beer retains the segment’s leading position with more than $220 million in sales in 2019. 

So we have arrived in 2020. The year of COVID-19 and the first complete year of operations for Lost Boy Cider – and what a year it has been. Just when Lost Boy had hit its stride – our ciders were receiving national recognition, the tasting room was busy, and we were having some success getting our ciders into markets, bars and restaurants – then COVID-19 hit.

As you can imagine, the pressures COVID-19 has presented us have been challenging. Tasting room and event revenue were critical to our growth plans. When those sources of revenue instantly disappeared, we were left scrambling. No customers, no tasting room, no events. We closed for a week and created a new curbside sales program. For three months, we survived by creating new ciders three times a week and releasing them in limited supply. With the help of my cider maker David Biun, his wife and a supportive community, we survived. But, enough about COVID-19.

Blessed with good fortune throughout our first year, Lost Boy Cider has rocketed off to a solid start. Our model is built on making approachable cider without added sugar using high-quality ingredients. Most people associate cider with sweet. Because Lost Boy ferments out all the sugars in our ciders, we can capture the essence of sweet by using high-quality apples.

Our ciders at Lost Boy Cider are made with apples from the Shenandoah Valley, right here in Virginia. We have a land contract with the Glaize family in Winchester, Virginia, since there is only one apple orchard in Alexandria, and I am sure George Washington would not want me scrumping on his land.

Breaking the mold of traditional cider makers, we regularly experiment with adjuncts like fresh berries, spices, vegetables and interesting fruits. For example, our Pixie Dust cider uses dried organic butterfly pea flowers and passion fruit to create a purple hue, while our Green Flash uses five varieties of dry and fresh hot peppers with freshly pressed cucumber juice.

As we move into year two, we are hard at work. Our new line of hard seltzers launches this month, and our line of 750ml barrel aged ciders will be released this fall after aging for nearly 10 months in French oak barrels from Burgundy.

Whatever comes next and based on all that has happened in year one, change will continue. But we can handle it. The Alexandria community has been incredible, and so far, we have staved off the worst of what COVID-19 threw at us. We are beyond grateful for all the support we continue to receive.

The writer is owner and founder of Lost Boy Cider. During the pandemic, the cidery is offering curbside pick up, and the tasting room is available by reservation. For more information, visit www.lostboycider.com.